I'm about to smother you...with all you need to know to make shrimp étouffée.
Étouffée is the French word for "smothered," and what it really describes is a Cajun and Creole cooking method in which a protein like shrimp is cooked on the stovetop in a thick, roux-based sauce. It's a method that's also used for crawfish, chicken, you name it. At home, especially in homes not near Louisiana, shrimp étouffée is probably the most popular version, since crawfish can be hard to come by.
To make a great étouffée, it helps to first deconstruct what the dish really is in a technical sense. On the surface, it resembles a stew, and that's often how it's described. But when made with quick-cooking seafood like shrimp, it's not really a stew, in that the shrimp are not stewed for any length of time in the liquid. In fact, they're one of the last ingredients to go into the pot, and only for just long enough to cook them through.
So what is étouffée, then? I'd describe it as a velouté—a stock-based sauce thickened with a roux—with distinctly Cajun and/or Creole flavors, in which the shrimp are poached.
You may be wondering why I'm trying to dissect étouffée in this way, and my answer is: flavor. If you understand what étouffée really is, you can make a more informed decision about how to cook a truly flavorful version of it.
To put it another way, if you think of étouffée as a stew, which relies on simmering the protein long enough to extract all its flavor, you risk disappointing results, since the shrimp are cooked only briefly. But if you think of it as a sauce that needs to be complete before the shrimp ever make their appearance, you're much more likely to end up with something delicious, because you're going to build that sauce the right way: from the ground up.
To make this killer sauce, what we need is a roux—a paste of flour cooked in fat—along with a truly flavorful stock, plenty of aromatic vegetables, plus herbs and spices. By the time the shrimp enter the pot, all the work is already done.
Roux is the French term for flour that's cooked in a fat like butter, oil, or lard, then used to thicken soups, stews, and sauces. It's a critical part of some of the most famous Cajun and Creole dishes, like gumbo and étouffée, so understanding its finer points is essential to those cuisines. (For a more thorough explanation, read my stand-alone guide to how to make roux and use it.)
Since the first step in making a roux is heating the fat, let's start with that. There is no one right fat for making a roux. Some cooks use oil, some use lard, and some use butter. I often grab butter because I love its flavor, especially in a dish featuring a delicate seafood like shrimp. That rich, toasted dairy flavor makes more sense to me with shrimp than a neutral oil does.
Whichever fat you use, once it's heated, the next step is to stir in an equal quantity of flour by volume. Together, they form a paste that you then have to cook—but just how much to cook your roux is no small decision. Much of the étouffée's final character hinges on this step.
Different people use different terminology to describe the various stages of a roux, but I'm going to use the ones that I find most intuitive.
The first stage is what I'm calling a blond roux. At this point, the raw flavor and aroma of the flour has been cooked out, but there's been little to no color development. We're still just looking at white flour mixed with golden butter. If you were making a classic béchamel sauce, also known as a white sauce, this is as far as you'd go. But down in Louisiana, there's no requirement to stop there.
Continue cooking the roux, and after a short while, it will take on a deeper tan color, verging on light brown. I'm calling this the peanut butter stage. By now, the roux has developed a toasted richness and more depth, but it's still on the mild side in terms of actual flavor.
Keep on cooking the roux, and it will descend into ever deeper shades of brown, until you get to something that resembles melted chocolate. Let's just think of that as a brown or chocolate-brown roux. It has an even deeper, more complex flavor, and an edge of bitterness.
There's no right answer for how much to cook a roux for étouffée. Ask around, and you'll meet fierce advocates of a blond roux, a peanut butter roux, a brown roux, and every shade in between. I happen to be in the peanut butter camp, since it produces an étouffée with a more complex flavor, while still retaining a bit of lightness. To me, a blond roux is too bland, while a brown one's bitter notes are too intense for shrimp. In this article, you'll see photos of étouffées made with a peanut butter roux and a brown one.
Some people find the near-constant stirring required to cook a roux on the stovetop to be a pain, and pop it in the oven instead. But making a roux in the oven takes quite a bit longer. On the stovetop, you can get to the peanut butter stage in about 10 minutes, and the brown stage in around 20 or 30 minutes. When cooking it in the oven, you often have to wait an hour or two for similar results.
Since I'm impatient and don't care to wait that long just to make a small amount of roux, I almost always do it on the stovetop. I also enjoy the sensory experience of standing over the pot and smelling the roux as it develops. You can be much more tuned into its flavor and aroma development by actively making it, instead of passively waiting for it to do its thing out of sight in the oven. Plus, it just smells damned good.
There's one more very important thing to know about the roux before we move on: The more you toast the flour, the less effective it will be in thickening the sauce later, since toasting deactivates the starch's thickening power. (This is exactly the same thing that happens with risotto.)
This is not of small consequence, because it makes writing a foolproof étouffée recipe difficult. The degree to which you brown the roux can impact how much roux and/or liquid you need for the sauce. Not knowing this can lead to problems.
I played around with different solutions to this challenge. I considered specifying a set level of doneness for the roux, so that my recipe would work every time without fail. But where's the fun in that? A cook should be able to make the roux of their choice, not mine.
In the end, I realized that by calling for less liquid initially, and then calling for adjusting the consistency of the sauce later with more liquid as needed, I could allow the cook to control the sauce exactly as they want, regardless of the chosen shade of roux.
In a classic stew recipe, your first step is usually to brown the meat, after which you sauté the vegetables and add liquids like stock. Then everything gets simmered together, extracting the flavor of the meat into the liquid slowly as it cooks; by the time the meat is fork-tender, you have a full-flavored dish.
In an étouffée made with shrimp, it can't work that way. We need to build the sauce's flavor before the shrimp ever enter the pot—otherwise, they'll overcook. One huge piece of that puzzle is the stock we use.
The most obvious choice is a shrimp stock, made using the shells. That's what my recipe calls for, but there's one very important point: Shrimp stock made with shells alone, while it's an option, won't be particularly flavorful. Shrimp shells just don't bring much flavor on their own.
Using head-on shrimp for shrimp stock is worlds better, because the heads are where all the good shrimp flavor is. The only problem is that head-on shrimp can be more difficult to find, and it will be particularly challenging for folks who live in places with a more limited seafood selection. If you can't find head-on shrimp, you can still proceed with the recipe, making a shrimp stock with just the shells. It'll be better than water, certainly, but it won't be great.
An arguably better alternative is to use a good-quality chicken stock, preferably homemade. Chicken stock may sound like a strange idea in a seafood dish, but don't let that dissuade you. I've seen plenty of étouffée recipes from Louisianans that call for chicken stock, so anyone concerned about "authenticity" has nothing to worry about. But really, adding a meat stock to a seafood stew has roots even deeper than that. Bisque, after all, is traditionally made with a seafood-enhanced meat stock.
If you do make my shrimp stock, the method is very similar to the one used in most classic shellfish stocks, designed to build flavor as much as possible. I sear the heads and shells, allowing them to brown and roast in hot oil, then deglaze with an alcohol like sherry or brandy, pack the pot full of aromatic vegetables and herbs, and simmer it all for a rich, deeply shrimp-y broth.
This is one stock I don't skim the fat from, since many of the flavor and aroma molecules released by the shrimp carcasses are fat-soluble. Keep that deep-orange oil that floats on top, since it tastes great.
Building the Sauce for More Flavor
Roux and stock aside, the rest of the sauce relies on aromatic vegetables, herbs, and spices for maximum flavor. That starts with the "holy trinity," the aromatic base of Creole and Cajun cooking. Unlike the mirepoix of onion, carrot, and celery used in French cuisine, the holy trinity omits the carrot and replaces it with bell pepper.
That bell pepper is often green, but red can be used, too. In an étouffée, I like doing a blend of green and red: The green gives it a more grassy, vegetal flavor, while the red adds a little more fruity sweetness. Plenty of garlic and chopped scallions add even more flavor to the mix.
I cook the trinity in the roux, stirring them together until the diced vegetables are coated in the roux's paste and begin to soften. Then I add the stock, followed by a powerhouse of flavorings: bay leaves, onion and garlic powders, cayenne pepper, dried oregano, dried thyme, and hot paprika, plus salt and plenty of black pepper.
The whole pot simmers, covered, until the trinity has softened fully and is melting into the sauce. Only now is it time to add the shrimp, cooking them just they're until firm and tender. As I mentioned above, I make sure to start off by adding the minimum amount of stock to the pot, since different doneness levels in the roux will impact its thickening ability.
There's actually one more thing that can affect the thickness of the sauce: the shrimp themselves. As they cook, the shrimp can release their juices into the sauce, thinning it slightly. This is just one more reason to hold off on adding more liquid until the end, since it's possible that a dark roux combined with juicy shrimp may mean you won't need any more liquid at all. If yours does, simply ladle in more stock until the gravy is just thick enough. For me, that's a gravy that coats a spoon, but still flows.
Generally speaking, bigger is better with shrimp. Certainly that's what their price per pound suggests. And in many dishes, I'd agree: Big shrimp are more of an indulgence.
In an étouffée, though, I'm less concerned with their size. If anything, they can be too big. What I prefer is a smaller shrimp that I can scoop up into my spoon along with some rice and gravy, for a big bite of everything together. Huge shrimp make that more difficult, unless you cut them up.
No matter what size shrimp you have, it's a good idea to brine them in the fridge while you make the rest of the étouffée. That involves tossing them with salt, which seasons the shrimp throughout and helps keep them plump, and also a bit of baking soda, which helps them retain a firm texture once cooked.
After all, you want to be smothered in tender, plump shrimp, not mushy ones.